June 23, 1999

The other part of the United States.

I got a call from a Haitian friend of mine about a week ago. He is in trouble. He has to get new housing and quickly. He came to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1993, got his formal status and has a green card. He had been badly beaten in a prison in Hinche, in Haiti's central plateau, his arms broken with iron rods. He came to St. Louis along with some 200 or so other Haitians who were settled in St. Louis. I worked with them helping them to settle into housing, get winter clothing, household articles and so on. I was able to organize a group of Webster University students who became volunteer tutors, helping the new immigrants learn English. Many nice friendships developed.

My friend first had an apartment with several other Haitian men, but he had six children in Haiti and, getting a lowly job in janitorial work, began to work hard to get his children here. They were of more than one mother, and marriage is not terribly common in rural Haiti among the poor, so he really had no legal means of bringing any mother here, yet I got the strong feeling, he didn't really want to. Before too long all six kids were here and an elderly aunt. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a very rough neighborhood, but were getting along -- until a couple of weeks ago.

When he called me he was terribly down and worried. His lease had come round on his apartment and in an inspection of the property the landlord determined there had been some damage and demanded it be repaired. He refused to do so on the landlord's terms, which did seem to me quite expensive modes of repairing the damage. Thus he was given an eviction notice. He needed help in finding housing.

Just a week ago we took off on our hunt, heading to the St. Louis City and County housing divisions. What an experience. He had wisely gotten into the system two years ago. When we went to the housing authority we were treated very well by attentive and caring staff. Yes, he was in the computer, but they were averaging 3 year waiting periods, it would be likely that they would find him a four-bedroom place within the next 12-18 months. That was the best they could do. He allowed he would happily settle for a three bedroom if that would expedite matters, but that wasn't an option. They have their rules and limits and the number of bedrooms is determined by family size.

We went from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but nothing. He is in a mess. But as we drove we talked, and as we talked his situation became clearer and his woes greater. Six years ago, with the help of the sponsoring agency, which brought him to St. Louis, he got his janitorial/housekeeping job. It paid $6.47 an hour. Now, six years later he is much liked by his employer and likes his job, which he says he knows very well, but the pay remains at $6.47 and there is no prospect it will change. There are no other benefits with the job than salary. Additionally, one young teenage daughter is about to give birth to a child, another just graduated from high school and wants to go to college, and his oldest son will enter high school this fall, but he is extremely worried about the level of violence and drugs he will be moving into. But, he has few options, or at least can imagine few to none. He wants to stay in St. Louis and likes the city.

Then it turns out that he is limited in transportation since one of his daughters's wrecked his car and an insurance company is after him since they had no insurance.

That's the basic data. The outcome is still up in the air, but we have found no alternative housing, but it does appear the landlord cannot evict him as quickly as she would like, so there may be some time to avoid them having to move into a homeless shelter.

Why I write all this in not only to pour out the sad tale of my friend, it is to reflect on how much the human emotive power of this experience brought home to me a tragic thing about our society. In many ways this is a wonderful country in which to live -- for most of us. We have a stable government, reasonable safety, if we choose our neighborhoods with some care. Most of us have jobs, some economic and personal security and live lives of great ease in comparative terms with the rest of the world, and with world history. I'm one of those who lives this privileged life that most others in the world aspire to an envy, and whom only a tiny tiny minority in the entire history of the world can even imagine, much less achieve.

Yet right in our own midst there is a sizable minority which does participate in this life of the United States. They live in a totally different world. A world of economic insecurity, poverty, grave physical danger on a daily basis, and, perhaps worst of all, near hopelessness of significantly altering their life prospects. There is an entirely "Other" America which is a shabby, ugly and dangerous place to be and live.

Of course I "know" this, everyone does. But it is so easy to forget, to put aside, and to ignore. I do it all the time. When most of us talk about life in the United States we talk about our world and not as much about that "other" world. People in my world are concerned about their personal safety and take lots of precautions to avoid becoming a victim of crime, in this sense the two worlds clash, since people in my world see, and with some justification, that threats to their personal safety come more from that "other" world than from within their own world -- at least in the short-term and immediate world of everyday life. We never fully escape into a private world, but that "other" world is, for most of us, on the periphery of consciousness and physically removed from our own world.

If that criterion is used, then there is a sizeable underclass in the United States which lives in a world that is very "other" that those of us on the other side. A world of poverty, danger and hopelessness. It's not the American most of us would celebrate and choose.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett